As the fictitious government spin doctor in The Thick of It, Malcolm Tucker was gloriously foul-mouthed. But I have quite often been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the language on the real government’s websites. And that’s partly because they try to avoid not just profanity – as you might expect – but also jargon and cliche.
Jargon is a menace. Even when experts are writing for experts, it often sows confusion. I came across one financial analyst writing of “cumulative CAGR”, which – for anyone familiar with the acronym – is a contradiction in terms. The author had probably used it so often he forgot what it stood for, and ended up writing nonsense. And jargon is just as treacherous for the layman, as David Cameron discovered after texting Rebekah Brooks – lol.
As Cameron’s mistake shows, jargon refers not only to precise technical terms, but to any word whose meaning is not self-evident to those outside a particular social group. It covers a swathe of buzzwords that now infest writing in business, academic and public sector organisations: key, foster, deliver, deploy, going forward, over time, and many, many more. These words may sound impressive to the writer, but tend to lead to vague or meaningless prose. With endless repetition they harden into empty cliche. If you use them habitually, it will dull your message and put readers off. They can always be replaced with plain English words that everyone understands.
The problem is we read so much of this guff that it takes constant struggle to avoid thoughtless regurgitation. And that’s why the government set up a kind of editorial enforcement unit a few years ago to improve the clarity of the writing on its websites. It produced an excellent list of words to avoid, and a useful style guide. My own banned list (below) includes crimes other than jargon and is far from complete, but you get the picture. Remember, jargon and cliche are superbugs in the hospital plumbing of good writing: they get everywhere and kill clarity.
In this regard
Fit for purpose
If that makes sense…
On the back of
Literally (it usually isn’t)
The former, the latter
To be continued…Suggestions welcome!